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Austria: Art Was Legally Acquired

January 10, 1998

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ The owner of two Egon Schiele paintings held in New York because they allegedly were stolen by Nazis says they were legally acquired, a government spokeswoman said Friday.

The paintings are among thousands of works amassed by Rudolf Leopold and bought by Austria in 1993. They were part of a three-month exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and were due to be shipped back to Vienna after the show closed Sunday.

On Wednesday, the two works were ordered held in New York when a city prosecutor intervened for claimants Rita Reif of New York and Henri S. Bondi of Princeton, N.J., who say they were stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish relatives.

A hearing is expected Monday.

Leopold, 72, assured the government the artworks were lawfully acquired, said Heidemarie Glueck, spokeswoman for the education and culture ministry.

The paintings, ``Dead City III″ and ``Portrait of Wally,″ were painted by Austrian expressionist Schiele in 1911 and 1912 respectively.

The fate of the two works is top news in Austria, with reactions ranging from anger, to fear over the future of museum lending, to soul-searching about Austria’s wartime past.

Initial Austrian comment reflected outrage, but by Friday the government was more restrained, hoping the dispute over the paintings does not become a bruising conflict like that over former President Kurt Waldheim’s concealed German army past.

Chancellor Viktor Klima appealed for a ``quick, objective solution ... that does not endanger international cultural exchange.″

In a rare anti-American tirade, the conservative Vienna daily Die Presse on Friday blasted the ``Wild West action″ of the Americans.

``The United States has again shown the brutality with which it can impose its own legal opinion on the world,″ it added.

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